Interview with Walter Hawkins
Thanks to my good friend, Vincent Allen, for sharing this interview with us.
In the fall of 2001, I had the privilege of meeting another Jesus Music legend, Walter Hawkins, founding member of the legendary Edwin Hawkins Singers of "Oh Happy Day" fame, pastor and choir director of the Love Center Choir and leader of the his family ensemble, the Hawkins Family. Our meeting was here in Atlanta after his delivering a sermon in a local church.
Vincent Allen - I listened to the introduction of you tonight and immediately wanted to ask, how you feel about being referred to as a "Gospel Legend?"
Walter Hawkins - I suppose that in a sense it's a real honor, however I have this sense that I'm still in my beginning stages. When people remind me, especially when young people come and say, "My mother or my grandparents were into your music." -They remind me that we've been around for a long time. But I always have this sensation that I'm just beginning. So it's hard for me to relate to something that's legendary.
VA - How many years would you say that it's been since you began in Gospel Music?
WH - Well, actually the late 60's when we did "Oh Happy Day," '68, I think. We've been singing all our lives, so I don't make a real separation in terms with what happened with "O Happy Day" from what we had been doing from mom grooming us as children, so it's all I know.
VA - In another interview, I read that you didn't initially see yourself as a lead singer. When did you get the revelation to come to front as a lead singer?
WH - I always wanted to sing. I don't want people to misunderstand when I said I didn't see myself as a singer. But I always felt like Tremaine, Lynette and the other family members "overpowered" me as a singer.
VA - Oh really, you?!
WH - Yea. So when I wrote a lot of the early material. What I would do is give what I felt was the better material to them and I'd sing the leftovers. Then by Love Alive III on, people would respond, "We enjoyed the album, but why didn't you sing more?" It was hard for me to get into my head that people actually wanted to hear me sing. As of late, I've been doing a lot of solo work before I get too, too terribly old. (Laughs)
VA - Do you feel you have more command of your voice than in the earlier years?
WH - That's a good question. I don't know if I'm any more sure or confident of myself. I think probably because I'm up so much as a "speaker" it's given me the confidence. Crowds have always scared me and I'm yet nervous.
VA - Today's artists looking to go into Gospel Music sometimes look at the glamour and potential perks of being in the industry and a celebrity. Tell us about the perks when the Hawkins started out.
WH - I'd be hard-pressed to find the perks!
VA - So how would you describe those early years?
WH - Difficult. They were difficult primarily because, while had the visibility with the introduction through "O Happy Day," we were somewhere between. We didn't belong to the World and we didn't belong to the Church, and we lived with that controversy for a number of years. People sang our music, but there was blatant display that they didn't think there was any credibility or a life behind it.
VA - That was within the Church?
WH - Yes.
VA - We include you in the area of Jesus Music which involved contemporaries from the white and black church circles with Andrae Crouch being on the forefront of the black artists. Where do you categorize your music?
WH - Well, you know, Andrae actually had a different audience. The majority of his audience was the white Christian market. Definitely, ours was the black Christian market and some of the secular market. I think blacks in Church have been more conscious of credibility issues. So we lived that situation which didn't wear off, I believe, until the "Love Alive" series actually started. They gave us a hard time. Even after the series started, there were churches that would sing our music, but would not invite us to sing. So when you talk about "perks," those issues overshadow anything.
VA - In the early 70's, you were called to the pastorate. Was that your priority at that time and then music became more of an emphasis later on?
WH - That's a good question. I was torn. I didn't know what it really meant in terms of what would happen with my music. While in my pastorate position, I felt a sense of guilt because I felt my music was suffering. If I went out and did music, I felt that the church was suffering. I battled with that for a number of years until God made it clear to me that they were together. I couldn't see it in the early stages.
VA - How long did you experience that struggle?
WH - I'd probably say within a good ten years into my ministry. With a new church, as with a new baby, you need to be home. That nurturing has to take place in those early years. Being gone was not a comfortable situation for me and I didn't have a pool of people that could help me. Most of the membership at that time came off the streets. There were no mature believers there to carry on the work. So I couldn't be gone for an extended length of time.
VA - Do you think that there was a draw to your church due to the popularity of the EH Singers and then the Love Alive Series?
WH - Actually, the blessing in disguise with the credibility issue is that I felt I wouldn't get any help from the church, so I didn't reach within the church to establish anything. We went out to the streets. I think that was good, in retrospect. Those kids back then didn't know who I was. So they weren't coming for the music.
VA - Seeing the Hawkins Family was great when I was a kid because even though Gospel singing families are part of American Tradition, but you all were more contemporary. So there was a disappointment when you and Tremaine split. Could the strains of being in the industry have put a strain on your marriage?
WH - I'm sure it played a part. To what degree, I'm not really sure. Tremaine and I actually grew up together. We were singing together when I was 10 years old and she was seven. So I think we so acclimated to each other since childhood, that dimension of the relationship didn't die. I think what happened is that we took for granted that we knew each other better than we actually did. We had an amicable split, remained friends and still work together.
VA - How did it affect you as a pastor?
WH - When it happened I was devastated as a pastor because I felt that I needed to be an example and had no authority in terms of relationship/marital counseling. But I learned to use it and could see in retrospect a lot of the mistakes that I made.
VA - Let's talk about the "Walter Hawkins look" from back in the day.
WH - Ha! (Laughs)
VA - Have you "evolved" since those days?
WH - You know I have!
VA - Do you look back on those old photos and say, "Oh my goodness?"
WH - It's funny to me. I look back on it and just say, "Well, that was me."
VA - Will there be a Love Alive 6?
WH - Most definitely.
VA - The Take Me Back Music Show although contemporary, features artists such as yourself. Through the show, I've found that the folks are still out there listening to the music from back in the day.
WH - We ain't that old!
Special thanks to Walter Hawkins for taking the time out to chat with me and his manager, James Edmond for making this meeting possible - Vincent Allen